Chris Bouton: This week the city of New Orleans began removing four monuments. One commemorating the triumph of the white supremacist White League over the city’s integrated police force in 1874. The other three were statues to Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard. Naturally, the removals have been highly controversial. Supporters of the removals point to the fact that the city shouldn’t be celebrating traitors and white supremacists. Opponents rely on the southern heritage and pride argument.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who led the effort to remove the moments, has argued that the monuments don’t represent the values of the city and that they’ll be placed in a museum where they can be properly contextualized.
Erin Bartram: I find that last part particularly compelling, because one of the arguments against this is that it is “erasing” history, and instead they should be contextualized. But we all know that just adding an additional plaque doesn’t do that. Taking them down and putting them in a new space that communicates “This monument and what it represents are history” plays on the multiple meanings of something being history.
Chris: The city tried adding another plaque to the monument back in the 70s distancing themselves from its message, but it doesn’t change the underlying message.
And the point that I tried to make in my piece yesterday is that the physicality of the monument implies a kind of historical stasis, when in fact monuments have histories of their own, reflecting the values from when they were built, modified, and now removed.
Erin: I did see that some SC political candidate is now saying that if we’re removing monuments like this we should also remove slave memorials. I didn’t read further because I didn’t want to have a stroke.
Chris: Ah, the false equivalency fallacy.
Dangerous and insidious.
If only there were more memorials to slaves in this country. Or at least as many as we have to Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, etc.
Erin: I can’t remember the ratio, but aren’t there like 6x more Confederate monuments in KY than Union ones?
Chris: I’m not sure, but that seems reasonable.
And Kentucky stayed in the Union!
Erin: I use this anecdote in class every semester right around this time, because it communicates so much.
I mean, the person saying “if we’re pulling down Confederate monuments, we should pull down slave monuments too” is saying “i’d rather erase the entire past than admit that slavery was bad and people who supported it were bad”
Chris: Yeah, it’s yet another way to avoid dealing with the past.
People wonder why historians are so pessimistic about the future, well when you spend years studying the past and then you see similar things happening in the present, it’s hard to be optimistic.
Erin: It is.
And we work so hard to see the full complexities of everything, how that piece of marble with words carved into it isn’t a thing in stasis, it’s actually a living, breathing thing that’s connected to its past and our present, only to have those complexities flattened.
Right now, my US II survey students are doing a project on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial which is pushing them to do this kind of work, and they can do it quite well. It’s just that politicians can’t.
Chris: And flattened for the purpose of perpetuating inequality or other values that modern society has deemed unacceptable.
Chris: We’re taking a gloomy turn here. Hang out with historians, we’re great at parties!
Erin: Hahahahah seriously
Chris: I did want to discuss the broader issue of who gets memorialized and why.
Erin: Side question: are we just focusing on memorials?
Chris: we can go broader if you want
Erin: Well I have a less sad/problematic monument to talk about so we can do that towards the end.
Chris: It seems to me that most memorials/statues/monuments tend to focus on old whiggish narrative of American history. We have presidents, battles, generals, soldiers.
There’s a whole cottage industry of touring Civil War battlefields and seeing the statues–built during Jim Crow largely–commemorating so-and-so’s glorious defense of this hill or that ridge.
Erin: And honestly, that’s done more to put lots of people off the history of the Civil War than anything else.
Those physical markers that commemorate/define a particular narrative are powerful.
That’s why the most recent kerfuffle is even worse, imho, because it’s not even about “the war.” It’s just about white redemption.
Chris: Right, once you’ve built the monument to Robert E. Lee or whoever else. You’ve provided a powerful anchor to people. The question becomes why was he remembered, instead it’s why should we take it down?
The members of the White League in New Orleans committed a coup d’etat against the elected government of the state of Louisiana.
Erin: I mean, Marie Kondo would say “does it spark joy?”
Chris: The Lee statue in New Orleans stands in the middle of a major rotary and right near the World War II museum, it’s a prominent landmark and it’s one I’ve always been uncomfortable with.
Chris: I can’t imagine how residents of the city, especially African-Americans feel about it. Other than to say, obviously they weren’t happy about it.
Erin: I feel like that sort of stuff gets lost in the reporting. The prominence and location and situation of a monument makes a difference (10 commandments on the courthouse grounds etc)
Chris: The Liberty Place Memorial used to have a prominent location at the foot of Canal Street, at the intersection of the Quarter and the Central Business District.
It was relocated when the city renovated Canal Street and decided that a monument to a white supremacist coup d’etat wasn’t the message they wanted to send in such a prominent place.
Erin: I mean, that’s the thing. When you say what it is, in plain English, the defenses of it become even more disgusting.
And the “but it’s our history” claims are pretty hollow when they come from the same people telling black Americans to get over slavery.
Chris: This is why the history of Reconstruction is so important and gets glossed over in survey classes.
Right, they’ve never had to live with the institutional legacy of slavery.
There was a great piece by 538 last week that southern counties that were majority African-American before the Civil War have higher death rates and worse economic outcomes.
Erin: I’m just trying to think about the memorials in my own town.
So, for most of my childhood, we had our Memorial Day celebration (biggest day of the year in Sharon, CT) at what we just called the Civil War Memorial.
Chris: Beverly had a Memorial Day parade that always ended at the Veterans Park right in front of the Post Office.
Erin: The memorial is just a stone cannon/cannonballs. I have no idea what’s written on it. Now we have another memorial, in the wall style, in another part of town, and I don’t know that anyone younger than me even knows the Civil War one is there. It’s in front of the house where this guy lived, oddly enough.
I think the fact that these Civil War-era memorials are so much more meaningful in the places that lost gets at exactly how much remains unresolved from that period.
Chris: That’s a great point.
Erin: Just as the VVM was fraught when it was created, less so now.
Chris: Right, I think we’ve largely forgotten just how controversial that memorial was.
Erin: I have my students watch the bit about it from the documentary on Maya Lin (HT Micki McElya who first showed me the film) and then look at newspaper articles from before, during, and after its creation. It’s a good way to think about how people thought about the legacy of that war over time.
Chris: Yeah, that documentary is great.
I’ve been struck by 2 memorials near Natchitoches. One is downtown, recognizing the site where the local Natchitoches Indians “were departed” from the area in the 1830s. The other commemorates the Colfax massacre and was put up in 1950. It celebrates the end of “carpetbag misrule” in Louisiana.
Chris: The passive voice construction in the Natchitoches Indians marker is just a fantastic way of avoiding any responsibility for forcibly removing local Native Americans.
Depart is not a passive verb. But it is when it absolves locals from dealing with thornier questions of responsibility.
Erin: So there is a war monument in Rockville, on the green right near my house, but I have no idea what it says. We also have this which I have never been to
Chris: I remember always seeing that sign, but never bothering to investigate.
Erin: Perhaps I’ll go visit and report!
The monuments in town I *do* know about are these two
First, this monument to Lafayette visiting
Chris: He was constantly confusing and confounding the British henchmen
(Had to drop the Hamilton reference)
Erin: And then the other one we have, which I think I have some photos of somewhere, is a monument to/by gift of a turn of the century businessman and temperance advocate
It is a big bronze plinth with him standing in a frock coat holding up a glass of water
And at the base of the plinth are little troughs with spouts in them
For dogs to drink!
Chris: That’s a nice touch. Not sure it will make anyone abandon that demon liquor though.
Erin: I mean, the statue isn’t plumbed in anymore. I think that says enough.
Chris: So what was the other monument you wanted to discuss? The more positive one?
Erin: Well that was one of them, but the other one
It’s not really a monument, but it sort of felt like one, so humor me.
Chris: Go for it. We’ve laid out the ways in which monuments tend to flatten history, especially in places where the history isn’t well-received. So let’s shift to something more positive.
Erin: So there was a field in my hometown that had two enormous old oaks in it. The field was at the bottom of a valley, and from up on the hill near my house, it was part of a really beautiful view that was painted a million times.
In a storm a few years ago, one of these oaks came down.
It was *wrenching* for the town
The second one came down not long after, like the remaining spouse of a long-married couple after the first has died.
And the town had a big discussion about what to do. Do nothing? Replant with saplings? Replant with older trees?
But the reason that I connect it to this discussion of memorials and monuments was one thing that always got mentioned in this discussion.
I don’t know if it was true, but it was often mentioned that Washington’s army traveled the road that is now route 41. Washington had seen this view. He had seen these trees.
And it wasn’t that we should reverence the trees because Washington saw them.
It was more about how much the trees themselves had seen, and how many people over the generations had seen them.
Chris: The trees, like the monuments we’ve been discussing, have this timeless, fixed quality to them.
And we can somehow share in their experience or understand better by being near them or touching them or something similar.
Erin: When they came down, it was like a connection to the past was ripped apart. I think you get the same sense when buildings burn sometimes, but in my corner of the state, these trees seemed to mean more than any buildings.
This is obviously not without precedent, especially here in Connecticut, where an important tree is on our state quarter!
Chris: It’s a physical, tangible connection to the past. It’s why we visit the ruins of the Forum in Rome or visit battlefields or look at Plymouth Rock. Sidenote skip Plymouth Rock it isn’t that interesting.
Erin: Ahahaha I’ve never been, now I won’t!
Chris: It’s a rock and most of the time it’s covered in water.
Erin: So my town and the neighboring town (which was one of the places the view was seen from) bought the land, and it became a preserve under the Sharon Land Trust. They had a big exhibit in town at the historical society celebrating all the art that had been produced of this view that was now gone.
But what I think is coolest is that they had an artist carve the wood from the trees into two gates for the preserve, each one the silhouette of one of the trees
They didn’t just leave the trees in the field. They didn’t just clear them away. They took them, repurposed them, put them in a new context, and used them to tell a story.
Chris: Now that’s a good way of memorializing something.
What are the monuments in your town? Leave us a comment!
NB, from Erin: I must include an important alternate point of view on the twin oaks from my grandfather: “What idiot would leave two trees like this in the middle of a field they had to plow?”